What could’ve been a bold and trippy work of cinema is instead a mediocre, made-for-streaming movie that watches more like an episode of TV.
Netflix’s Spiderhead may be billed as Chris Hemsworth’s new movie, and technically it is in so far as that it ticks the technical boxes of what a feature film should be – namely, that it runs for 1 hour and 47 minutes.
It also ticks some boxes in that it’s centred on an interesting story concept, has some decent performances and competent production design.
But it would be very generous to call Spiderhead cinematic.
Directed by Joseph Kosinski, the sci-fi thriller watches more like a lesser episode of Black Mirror, or some other contained chapter in an anthology series. The screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick struggle to elevate the work from its source material, a short story by George Saunders.
The larger canvas only serves to highlight how small and timid the execution is – every scene plays for a beat or two too long while the whole middle act attempts to stretches out about seven minutes of story without adding enough extra texture to justify its length.
Jeff (Miles Teller) is a prisoner serving out his sentence in an isolated scientific facility situated on an island archipelago. In exchange for the luxury of living in sleek, modern accommodation and dining on gourmet meals, Jeff and his cohort are subjected to chemical experiments.
Conducted by Steve Abnesti (Hemsworth), a man whose style inspiration comes from Simon Le Bon and whose commitment to working out comes from, well, Chris Hemsworth, the experiments involve administering different drugs through a device implanted on the prisoners’ backs.
The mood-altering chemicals does a variety to things to Jeff – some are seemingly innocuous such as making him laugh uncontrollably as if he had just wolfed down the most potent pot brownies, or ethically dubious such as a love drug that stirs deep desires for another person.
But other drugs are far more malicious, such as the one which provokes extreme terror.
Jeff suspects there’s a greater ambition to Steve’s experiments, and the audience knows it too because Steve’s assistant, Verlaine (Mark Paguio) is increasingly uncomfortable with what they’re doing.
All that is wrapped up in a story about Jeff’s redemption as he tries to come to terms with the actions that landed him there in the first place, and a burgeoning connection with fellow prisoner Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett).
Spiderhead feels like a half-baked story, unable to capitalise on the intriguing seed at the centre of its story. And beyond Teller’s Jeff, every other character is thinly written. It never takes the big swing.
It makes you wonder what a more playful sci-fi filmmaker such as Patrick Somerville (Maniac, Station Eleven, Made for Love), or a bolder storyteller like Alex Garland might have done with the premise.
Garland, who wrote and directed Ex Machina and Annihilation, is a provocateur whose imagination sprints past outer limits and he could’ve filled out the world of Spiderhead with wild abandon. You only have to look at his criminally under-watched TV series Devs to see how a more creative filmmaker could’ve expanded an idea into an experience.
As it is, the lacklustre Spiderhead is just a made-for-streaming movie that wastes its potential.
Spiderhead is streaming now on Netflix
Originally published as Chris Hemsworth’s Netflix movie Spiderhead is a lacklustre misfire